For those of us who are not part of Princeton Reunions this Thursday through Saturday, May 31 through June 2, one of the best offerings is the annual festivities is the display of art from the private collections of the alumni celebrating their 50th reunion. These annual exhibitions offer a sampling of museum-quality holdings that have, in many cases, been culled from the walls of the alumni’s dining rooms and parlors.
The tradition continues in full swing this year with ‘57 Collects: A Fiftieth Anniversary Celebration. On view at the Princeton University Art Museum through Sunday, August 12, the exhibition features a star-studded roster including some of the most important artists of the past century as well as some notable earlier works, along with a sampling from the ancients.
What is more, the Class of ‘57 has turned this year’s event into a double-header. In addition to the usual, the celebrants have included a mandate in which they encourage the donation of the art in the display. As a result, several of the works in this exhibition are “promised,” which means they will ultimately become part of the museum’s permanent collections.
A powerful, abstracted, portrait of a woman painted by Pablo Picasso, installed in the main gallery, marks the entrance to the exhibition and sets the standard for the quality of the show. Once inside viewers are informed that the labels with orange type indicate promised gifts — and what giving it is.
As in year’s past, the list is star-studded — John Cage (better known as a composer), Donald Judd, Franz Kline, and Abraham Walkowitz among them. The range of media covers etching, lithography, oil painting, and a woodcut. An especially significant inclusion is an oil study by Eastman Johnson, a late 19th century painter noted for forging new American themes and guiding American figure painting into an era of determined Realism. “A Glass with the Squire,” circa 1880, the gift of Stuart and Sue Feld, captures the painterly richness and feeling of evocative narration that were hallmarks of the art of that era.
Although the exhibition is relatively modest in size, with some 30 works on view, it offers a fair sampling of then and now. Beginning with work made thousands of years B.C., the collection marches through time, concluding with an edgy lithograph made only a few years ago by New Jersey artist Kiki Smith. In between are major points of artistic reference. Among them are a Cycladic figural sculpture made circa 2500-2400 B.C, a Greek head from 5th century B.C., several Late Classic Maya vessels, African carvings, and an unusual Philippine backpack woven out of natural fibers that looks like it is ready to get up and walk away.
“Still Life with Pears and Grapes,” by James Peale, is a prime example of the elegant, formal style of early American painting executed by a member of the celebrated family of artists. Several romantic paintings and an etching by Winslow Homer join with the Peale and the Johnson to address the range of art in the 19th century.
The journey through artistic time continues into the 20th century where a rich array of painting, drawing, and prints captures the artistic diversity that marked the past 100 years. A soft focus photographic portrait of a woman by Man Ray; one of Willem de Kooning’s startling expressionist paintings of a woman, rendered on newsprint and Effigie Incertaine XXXVI, by Jean Dubuffet are among major landmarks marking the progression of style.
The range of artistic possibilities found in the use of line is nicely illustrated by stylistic contrasts between several of the works on paper. A relatively realistic self-portrait in ink and a graphite-rendered nature study by Francis Picabito contrast with the lyrical calligraphy in a pair of stylized ink drawings of Isadora Duncan by Abraham Walkowitz, while John Cage’s geometric print demonstrates the artistic possibilities of the straight line and simple geometry.
The assembled art is especially interesting to this reviewer because it seems to me that when works such as these coexist with everyday life in an intimate domestic setting, rather than in the more rarefied, sheltered atmosphere of a museum or similar institution, the art develops a patina, an aura of warmth and energy that lends an air of aesthetic accessibility. It is interesting to think of these notable images, one at a time, on a living room wall, where their beauty is — for the moment — the sole property of the viewer; an exclusive engagement which is a special event when it comes to looking at important art.
‘57 Collects: A 50th Anniversary Celebration, through Sunday, August 12, Princeton University Art Museum. On the occasion of the 50th reunion of the Class of 1957, the exhibition features works selected from the personal collections of class members.